Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Story Structure Basics - 13 Major Beats

[Revised 18 March 2015]

Click for Larger Image
Often when a producer or writer sends me a script to analyze it's because they sense that there's a problem with their story. Usually they're right, and the biggest offender is a lack of structure.

The problems reveal themselves in several ways. There may be three acts, but the protagonist doesn't have a physical goal that the audience can see and root for. Their protagonist may have a physical goal, but the turning points are not the result of the protagonist's moral decision or action. There may be turning points initiated by the protagonist but not for any singleness of moral purpose. In biographies the writers are often so taken by what they presume to be the moral virtues of their protagonist that they fail to include any serious conflict or an antagonist that forces the protagonist to change. The result of problems such as these is the lack of drama, weakened entertainment value, or no way for an audience to become emotionally engaged. 

Perhaps most difficult to obtain is an even emotional roller coaster effect throughout the story. Often critics and viewers complain about a slow second act, or a "sagging middle." The beat outline describe in this post can solve that problem. Each beat (13 or 20), when properly understood and applied, creates a regular roller coaster from front to back. Notice the wavy blue line in the graphic; this represents one ideal of how an audience's emotions can be manipulated by understanding the placement of the 13 (20) beats. Each peak and valley of the line corresponds to a beat. If the beats are missing or misplaced, the blue line sags or plateaus.

What causes the ups and downs is whether or not the protagonist is portrayed as achieving his goal or not. Is he or she being successful or endangered? That emotion is tied directly to the           assimilation of the Moral Premise in the life of the protagonist—will the protag. learn the truth of the moral premise and achieve his or her goal or not. All of this happens in the minds and hearts of your audience on a subliminal level, but it should never be subliminal to the creator, you.

What follows is a generic summary of what I might write in a story report to such writers or producers, as I explain the basics of what's missing in their story. I usually start off by describing that what follows is a natural law of story telling. It's not my opinion, but the consequence of untold experiments of storytelling over the ages. If you want a story to connect, then you can't ignore this stuff, at least not story foundations. [See subsection Story Development Steps/Story Foundations]

There are several ways to describe the basics of successful story structure, but not many.  What I describe below is covered in many places by many others, but only in slightly different turns of phrases and terms. [e.g. Michael Hauge's SIX STAGE PLOT STRUCTURE, Chris Vogler's (Joseph Campbell's) 12 STAGES OF THE HERO'S JOURNEY, and Blake Snyder's BEAT SHEET.  --- WHAT!? You thought I was going to provide links -- in the middle of MY blog? -- actually, if you search through my site and blog you will find links to these excellent resources, and there's always Gooogle, that "spell checker in the clouds".

Michael Hauge's IDENTITY and ESSENCE

I do want to mention one concept that is particularly insightful. Michael Hauge makes this observation about stories, which are, of course, about a particular character, our hero. At the beginning of stories the character wears a mask of self-imposed IDENTITY. The character thinks he is one thing, when in fact his true ESSENCE (or nature) is something else.  So, in a redemptive story our protagonist will begin wearing his IDENTITY (a false understanding of what is true for that person), and through the drama of the story be transformed into his true ESSENCE. That transformation corresponds perfectly with my description of the moral premise and the vice and virtue that describe the protagonist's motivation and arc. The story question is always centered on whether or not the hero will recognize and embrace his or her true essence and cast off the mask of false identity.

Now, on with the basics and the 13 steps... (or 20 if you add the 7 alternative accents or bits.)


that connect with audiences and readers, there must be, at the skeletal foundation of your tale: 3 Acts, 6 Turning Points, 7 Sequences for 13 Must-Have Steps. Plus there may be 7 more bits or accent beats.

Yes, the numbers may be different if there are a different number of ACTS, such as 5 or 15. Shorts will have have fewer beats, fewer subplots, and fewer characters than a movie, and a  movie fewer of all those than a novel. But the essential pattern of 3 acts or 6+7 for 13 beats are still there and either under-girding or overlapping. But like all arithmetic problems involving fractions, there is a way to reduce the problem to its fundamentals.

CLICK graphic for larger image.
[Elsewhere on this blog I discuss some of these same points from other perspectives. Check the side bar menu for topics dealing with Structure, Acts, Characters, Arcs, First Entertain, and some of the longer posts on specific films where I discuss the application of these points. Some of the more instructive posts are: First EntertainHow to Emotionally Connect With Your Audience, Romances and the Conflict of Values, The Hero's Two Journeys, and The Story Diamond. In mentioning (and showing a small rendition of The Story Diamond (at left) I'm opening Pandora's box for some, or turning on the light for others. With the 3 acts, 6 turning points, and 13 beats as a foundation, you will find many ways to accent and deepen your story's structure with what I'll call BIT or ACCENT BEATS, or TRANSITION BEATS,  MOTIFS, and other appropriate terms. In the discussion below I will mention briefly 5 of these ACCENT elements, but I'll make their presence brief so as not to get too far off the track.

(I'll repeat the above slide for convenience of reference. My brief points deal only with the protagonist but most of my points are true about all the other main characters to a lesser degree.)

ACCENT BIT (14): Prologue.
A short scene or sequence that explains the protagonist's backstory, and possible childhood wound that gives understanding to his motivation or character.

ACCENT BIT (15): First Image.
An opening image that establishes the emotional tone and setting of the beginning of the story. In a redemptive story, this image may visualize the epitome of the negative side of the moral premise.

Act 1 - STEPS 1-4

Step 1: LIFE BEFORE. [Sequence]
Your Protagonist (P) has a life, but it's not perfect. He misses something physical and upstairs there's a bolt that is either missing or not properly torqued. The P doesn't know it, but we do. In retrospect we will notice that put on display in these first minutes of the story are two values, a virtue and an opposing vice, which establish the core motivational conflict of the story. Both values will be evident in all the main characters, and in retrospect they will best be described in the story's moral premise statement.
[a psychological vice] leads to [physical detriment]; but
[a psychological virtue] leads to [physical betterment]

Step 2: THE INCITING INCIDENT. [1st Turning Point (TP) 10-15%].
That antagonist does something that incites the P to recognize the need for  change. The change will center around a physical goal and a psychological need. This moment will be the first explicit point at which the core conflict of values in the story are brought front and center.

The P rejects the need to go after the goal or psychologically change. His friends debate the want and the need with him, the antagonist teases, but the P thinks he is "happy" and refuses the call.

The debates and the teasing culminate, coalesce, and boil over in the P's mind and life, and he makes the decision to pursue the journey. He sets before him a physical goal and decides to go for it. He is probably not aware of the physical or psychological consequences of his decision, or the changes his life will go through, but the die is cast and he's on his way into the Special World of the Journey.  The events depicted in the Climax must be the consequence of his want and need, and he must be the one that chooses to to resolve the climax and leave the ordinary world behind and strive to change.

Act 2 - STEPS 5-8

ACCENT BIT (16): B-STORY BEGINS (noted by the inverted green triangle at beginning of Act 2)
The B-Story is a subplot involving a character close to the protagonist, such as the romance character, a close friendship, or mentor whose appearance only makes sense because the protagonist had the guts to cross the threshold into the Special World of Act 2 and go on the journey. The B-Story starts within a couple scenes of the protagonist crossing the threshold. 

In his naive pursuit of the physical goal, the P puts to use his well-worn, tried, and tired vice to get at what he wants.  But he has entered a special world, both physically and psychologically. It's an adventure that will test his body, mind, and spirit... and the values of this place are different. The P's vice is brought to the forefront of the story mostly in the life and character of the antagonist. Yes, the psychological need (the virtue) of the P is evident, if one looks for it, but what is evident is the role of the antagonist who lures and tempts the P to use the powers of the vice to make progress. Yet, regardless of what the P tries, he makes little progress toward his goal. He won't see it, but preventing him from making progress is that pesky vice and the natural law consequences of it. Autocracy doesn't result in teamwork. Arrogance doesn't lead to relationships. Greed doesn't foster shared responsibility.

In novel writing this refers to the appearance of the antagonistic force in one of various forms. One reason second acts bog down is that the protagonist is not being stirred up by the opposing force to his or her journey. This is not a turning point. It's a reminder that there's a conflict that is between the protagonist and his or her goal. It is this force that prompts the Moment of Grace. Thus the Pinch Point gives the writer a reminder that the MOG is not going to be realized without conflict.

Step 6: The Moment of Grace - The Mid-Point [3rd TP - 50%]. 
This is the mid-point, where story gurus will tell you that the P makes an all or nothing commitment to the journey. And they will be right. This moment in the story, however, is not usually a big physical action moment. It is rather one of subtle but deep realizations. The events of Step 5 will have conspired to form in the P's mind a conclusion... that using the vice side of the moral premise isn't working.. and he needs to try something else. He BEGINS to understand and use the virtuous side of the moral premise statement to achieve his goal. In LIAR! LIAR! Jim Carey's FLETCHER REEDE realizes (as he stands literally on the fence line between imprisonment and freedom for him and his towed car) that he's been a bad father. FLETCHER turns from lying to seeing the value in telling the truth.  In KARATE KID V Jaden Smith's DRE suddenly discovers that the "put on jacket, take off jacket" exercises that he has so disrespected, have taught him how to defend himself against the attacks of an aggressor. DRE turns from disrespect to respect.   In A BEAUTIFUL MIND! Russell Crowe's JOHN NASH discovers that he can control the sick side of his mind with the strong side of his mind and he stops taking his medication. He turns from depending on others to taking personal responsibility.  The P will not have learned the lesson perfectly at this point, because we still have half the movie to cover, and there is strength to be gained through exercise, both physically and mentally.

Now that real progress can be made toward the goal, the stakes are raised. The antagonist sees that all may be lost, and so even greater obstacles are raised against the P's portending success. Thus the conflicts become more frequent or of greater difficulty. It seems during this part of the story that both the P and the antagonist both make progress. At least the antagonist is scared that the P is gaining on him.

This serves the same basic purpose of PINCH POINT A in Act 2. Except this time the Pinch Point is more aggressive and actually contributes to the  A2 Climax and the false end of the story. It is the antagonist rising up and apparently defeating the protagonist, which brings on the Near Death  of the A2 Climax.

Step 8: ACT 2 CLIMAX/BURNS BRIDGE, FALSE END [3nd TP - 75%].  
Finally, the P makes a decision that is the equivalent of burning his bridges. He removes the last remnant of the vice mask that he has worn. He reveals his true essence, and engages the antagonist. The only problem is that the antagonist wins the battle, and it appears that the P is forever lost and doomed. At times it can appear that movie is over. End of story. The P has given his all and lost.

ACT 3 (Steps 9-13)

Step 9: Dark Night of the Soul, All or Nothing Decision Reached, Removal of the Mask. [Sequence]
The P rises out of the ashes of battle in Step 8, passes through a dark period of contemplation and consideration, and now at least mentally stronger with a perfect understanding of his true essence, he enters the lair of the antagonist with a small team at his side. He has removed a mask of false identity (having lost it in the Act 2 climax) and this rally's those most loyal to him.  Time is now the essence of virtue; things move quickly. He and his small force forge and sharpen their "swords" and begin the attack, face-to-face, hand-to-hand. This can be described as the beginning of the story's climax, but as you'll see there are turns ahead.

(Formerly, I labeled  Step 9 "Hand-to-Hand Combat," but what I meant was that it was the preparation for Hand-to-Hand Combat. Often the Resurrection Beat accent (description that follows) will occur early in Step 9, allowing the protagonist and cohorts to actually prepare with their hands for a battle even as they fight their inner turmoil and despair.)

ACCENT Bit (19): Resurrection Beat. (noted by the inverted green triangle at beginning of Act 2)
The moment when the P is given a hopeful revelation as to the solution to his predicament that is capable of bringing him out of the despair of Step 9. But before he can act on this new and possibly supernatural insight...the final incident occurs.

Step 10: Final Incident [4th TP - 85%].
But the antagonist has one more trick up his sleeve, or is stronger in one way or another, and is able to defend his position, and move the P's forces to the side, make them ineffective or kill them. Like the inciting incident this final incident is the moral decision by the antagonist. Yet, where in Act 1 the action was offensive, now the antagonist's decision/action is defensive. But it is has impact. It has the effect of making the entire conflict PERSONAL for the protagonist. It's no longer about the team, because through this final incident the larger picture has been shoved aside.

Step 11: Prepare to Die. [Sequence]
Now it has gotten down to this. The P must face the dragon alone. There are no others. It is the pure essence of the protagonist against the "false" identify of the protagonist personified in the antagonist. It is the vice vs. the virtue, in the metaphoric forms of the two main characters. Whether the weapons of choice are words, tortes, knives, guns, or a flying round-house kick - the story's outcome is being prepared by the protagonist and antagonist during this sequence.

Step 12: Hand-to-Hand Death Fight. Act 3 Climax: Victory or Defeat [5th TP - 95%]
This step may be either an escalated continuation of the action or events in Step 11 or a discrete battle. In a tragedy the P will decide wrongly and be utterly destroyed.  In a redemptive story the P will give his all, and in one final flurry of effort, decide to use the one weapon or tool or word to win the day.

Step 13: Dénouement: Life After. [Sequence]
We show the final consequences of the many decisions and turning points of the story. In an action story, this will be less than a minute in length. In more serious drama it will take 5 minutes. But it is quick. One thing that's important to show is that even after all the P has been through, and although we now see the essence of the character shine (in a redemptive story) or the tragic end (in a tragedy), or the improvement of life -- perfection never reigns supreme. Things are better or worse, but never perfect.

ACCENT BIT (20): Last Image
A closing image that establishes the emotional tone and setting at the end of the story. In a redemptive story, this image may visualize the epitome of the positive side of the moral premise.


tonymcfadden said...

So, a year late to the party, but still a great post.

I've had numerous 'discussions with people about story structure (I "discovered" how essential it is a little over a year ago) and I think it's a binary proposition - either writers understand the need, or refuse to acknowledge its existence. When you can point out, in any successful movie or book, each of these steps it seems pretty clear that something's at work.

Thanks for posting this. There's a nice layer of character development I haven't seen before.


Stan Williams said...

Thanks for the comment Tony. Yes, it's somewhat "binary." But successful writers, even though they don't understand structure, will by osmosis "stumble" upon it, or work it into their stories by sharing it with the various readers and partners associated with the project. Chapter 4 of the book talks about how this happens through various organic processes.